Nutrition as a Component of Equine Dental Care

The old adage says “you are what you eat”—but that’s only if your teeth are up to the job!

A horse might be offered a diet of high-quality hay, for instance, but if he’s unable to chew and digest that food properly, he could still look ribby. As a result, it’s important to consider your horse’s dental status when planning his diet.

At the 2014 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention held in Salt Lake City, Utah, Caroline N. Niederman, VMD, FAVD/Equine, described how nutritional assessment and dietary modification can be included into a regular equine dental care program. Having an annual oral examination gives the opportunity not only to identify dental abnormalities, but also to document the loss of cheek-teeth chewing surface area that occurs with age as a product of normal dental eruption and wear.

Dental abnormalities can have a negative impact on how horses—especially older ones—consume and utilise the nutrients in food. As such, performing a complete oral exam affords the veterinarian with the opportunity to educate owners on how to provide adequate nutrition as the horse ages to prevent choke, impactions, and pronounced weight loss.

The Complete Dental Exam

A complete oral examination begins by compiling a dental history, including questions such as:

• What and how often do you feed your horse?

• Does he have pasture access?

• Is your horse still able to consume hay?

• Does he leave any chewed, but undigested, boluses of hay behind (termed “quidding”)?

• Where is your horse fed, and is he separated from other horses at feeding time?

• How long does it take your horse to finish meals?

• Has he gained or lost weight in the past year?

• What do his faecal balls look like?

• Are they formed and moist, dry, or are there pieces of undigested hay?

• Is your horse on any medications?

Once the history has been collected an in-depth dental exam should be perform by a qualified dentist or veterinarian. The oral exam, from a nutritional perspective, should focus on evaluating the cheek teeth’s occlusal (chewing) surface and enamel loss. Enamel loss decreases the chewing surface area used to masticate hay. The term ‘smooth mouth’ describes teeth experiencing this process.

Other common problems include:

Cupped teeth—These occur when the upper cheek teeth’s exposed crown wears below the occlusal surface (area of contact between teeth) and closer to the tooth roots but above the gums; this condition can also occur in lower cheek teeth.

Expired teeth— Upper (Maxillary) or Lower (mandibular) cheek teeth at the end stage of wear, where the teeth are worn down to the cemental roots.

This Intra-oral photo shows teeth belonging to a geriatric horse that can no longer safely eat hay due to dental wear.: Photo: Courtesy Dr. Caroline N. Niederman

Nutritional Recommendations

Appropriate nutritional advice is not possible until all aspects of the clinical examination have been completed and this also includes observing the horse during eating times and looking at the overall picture. For example, a thin geriatric horse could be seen standing all day out in a paddock with a round hay bale along with other younger and fatter horses, which may leave owners thinking that the horse is obviously getting enough. However that older horse’s teeth may simply be unable to chew the hay as well and, thus, that horse can only stand aside as other horses feed, which of course will not help him to gain weight. Another common scenario is where, despite eating plenty complete feed each day, the horse is still thin. Once other factors such as the wrong feed choice, digestive issues (such as ulcers), over work or stress have been ruled out, it may be useful to find out how long it is taking the horse to eat at each feeding. A good rule of thumb to use is that if an underweight horse takes longer than 45 minutes to finish each meal, the horse could be having issues with chewing that food and switching to a more calorie dense feed, allowing less kg to be fed, could be warranted.

Understanding how horses’ teeth erupt throughout their lives and common wear patterns could help to better understand how to feed your horse. For instance, when a horse’s last three maxillary cheek teeth are all either cupped or expired, it is time to look for a long-stem hay alternative, especially if the horse doesn’t have pasture access.

For senior horses with diminished chewing function (and assuming lab work has precluded health problems such as renal or hepatic dysfunction), the following diet could be useful:

• Chopped or soaked grass or grass/lucerne -mix hay cubes at a rate of 1 to 2% of body weight per day.

• A complete feed comprised of 12 to 14% crude protein, 8 to 20% crude fat, and 5 to 10% crude fibre; and

• If extra energy for work is needed, a cup of edible oil per day.

NB: This is a basic guideline, Please consult a nutritionist before starting such a diet to ensure it is a) necessary and b) covers all of your horse’s needs.

Conclusion: Routine oral examination and regular dentistry work (at least annually) presents an opportunity to become aware of age-related tooth wear and to discuss proactive dietary modifications.

Article taken and adapted from articles/35288/nutrition-as-a-component-of-equine-dental care?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=nutrition&utm_ campaign=02-09-2015

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